Yesterday my son and I were browsing in the bookstore. He asked me why all Dick Francis novels have a picture of a horse on the cover.

“Because his stories are set around horseracing,” I said. “It’s his gimmick.”

“What’s your gimmick?” my son asked.

“I guess I don’t really have one.”

“You should make poker your gimmick.”

“Hmm. I guess I could have a character who’s a professional gambler, a guy who goes to all the big poker tournaments. Of course, it would take a lot of research. I would have to live that life for a while.”

He laughed. “Yeah, sure. Research. That’s what you could call it.”

See, my son thinks life on the road as a gambler sounds exciting and glamorous. I’m not so sure about that, but a poker theme for mysteries does sound like a decent gimmick.

So what’s your gimmick? Do you have one? Do series sell better with a gimmick?

Of course, at least one writer is already doing poker mysteries.

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It's a matter of identifying a likely market. Golfers buy golf mysteries, teachers buy mysteries where the protagonist is a teacher. old ladies buy mysteries about an old lady kicking ass (as they say).

I write books set in historical Japan. That identifies them for people interested in that sort of thing.
But beware! I also turn off readers who like their mysteries set on more familiar grounds (like the European Middle Ages or Ancient Rome).

In the end, gimmick notwithstanding, you still have to write a good novel.

(I should add that I stayed away from Dick Francis for years, because I thought books about horseracing would be boring.)
Good points, I.J.
Look at the Amazon review scores of those poker mysteries. One star, two and a half stars, and three stars. And look at the publication dates, they got worse as the series went on. That might tell you something about gimmicks right there.
LOL! Actually, that probably tells you more about the skills of the author.
Pepper's right, John. You can't judge gimmicks in general based on one author's performance.
Yeah, you're right, but that's still a funny example. But I wonder if the Dick Francis horseracing thing is really a gimmick. I haven't read his books, but just because they are all about horseracing doesn't make that a gimmick. If that's the case then you can say that crime is the gimmick used in crime fiction because every crime fiction book is about crime. Is Heian Japan I.J.'s gimmick because she sets her books in the same era? I don't think so. That's just her setting (of course, setting isn't just where the story is located, but that's a different discussion).

A gimmick, at least in contemporary common usage as I understand it, is something used to sell a product, but which doesn't add any real value to the product. It's not just a travel mug, it's a travel mug with a clock in it. The clock doesn't add value to the function of the mug, but it helps sell the product because it offers something extra.

So the setting or main topic of your novel is not a gimmick unless you can take it out and still have basically the same story. And changing the setting or subject of a novel will not give you basically the same story.

Therefore, since a gimmick is a tool used primarily to sell a product (and gimmick has negative connotations), I don't see why anyone who is interested in writing a good story would go out of his way to have a gimmick. I think writing a good story will improve your chance of a sell better than a gimmick will, yet all too often the question asked is "will this sell?" rather than "does this make for a good story?"
Dick Francis began writing horseracing mysteries because he was a jockey, and it was a world he knew very well. Many of his earlier protagonists were jockeys. Now they're mostly people who have some connection with the horseracing world, though sometimes we still get a jockey protagonist.

I think historical characters can be a gimmick, depending on how they're used. Settings can be a gimmick. Murder weapons, serial killers, cat detectives, can all be gimmicks, used to attract certain reading audiences. It really depends on the way they're used.
I agree. It seems from your description of Dick Francis that horseracing isn't a gimmick for him, but rather he is writing about something he enjoys. Do you agree with that, or does he use it as a gimmick?
I think it's just a world he's very comfortable with and can write authoritatively about. It's not really a gimmick to me.
I really didn't have such a negative connotation in mind. Maybe "gimmick" isn't even the right word. I don't know. "Hook?" "Theme?" Those words carry other literary connotations, though. What do you call the recurring thingy in mystery novels used to attract a certain segment of the reading population?
Plot? Maybe specialty is a better word, if you're talking about a way to describe how an author's entire work (or majority anyway) follows the same theme or subject matter. Or maybe M.O. (modus operandi).
You know, the way JA Konrath uses the names of cocktails for titles in his Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels series; the way Patterson uses lines from nursery rhymes for titles in his Alex Cross series; Lilian Jackson Braun's "The Cat Who..." series; Parnell Hall's Puzzle Lady mysteries...

Ad infinitum. What's the word for that?


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